In 1997 Christine and Stevan Larner finally saw their dream of being in the wine business as a reality. Purchasing a 130 acre south facing parcel, perfectly situated in what is now Ballard Canyon, they began the Larner family legacy. Their son Michael was working as a Geologist in Colorado prior to the new family endeavor, but he always knew he wanted to come back to the earth, and being able to pass something down for multiple generations was fascinating to him. “The legacy aspect was my biggest selling point.” And so began the long and meaningful process of planting a vineyard and becoming a winemaker. Michael earned his Masters Degree in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis and has been making wine since 1999.
Michael’s experience as a geologist before being a winemaker, allows him to see the winemaking and viticulture aspects much more from the land itself. He wants “to be firmly grounded to the earth” which has multiple meanings in Michael’s life. Leaving his career to join his family in their vineyard and winery endeavor gave him a sense of creating something that was always there, a legacy. His winemaking style is all about the site expression, allowing the wines to be the speaking word from the vineyard.
“Something there was present, this is the true essence of terroir, it’s coming from the land. As a geologist I am very comfortable with that, because I have studied the earth.”
As a winemaker Michael enjoys experimenting with different fermentation techniques, yeasts, and barrel choices. The process of giving and take allow the terroir to speak as loudly as it can through his wines. The Larner Vineyard and Winery team consist of more than just Michael, his wife Christina, mother Christine, and sister Monica each offer their own distinct look into the legacy. Figuring out where each wine will fit within the Larner program is a family affair. As a wine critic living in Rome, Monica looks at the wines from the eyes of the critic– how it’s going to do in the market. Christina is much more in tune with where the wines fit in from a generation standpoint, and Christine with her background in business is “the price guru.”
“The land was speaking louder than the winemakers.”
Michael is not only a fantastic viticulturist and winemaker but also co-founded the Ballard Canyon AVA. Ballard Canyon is a north-south running valley totaling 7,000 acres, one of the smallest in California. Described as the ‘Goldie Locks’ AVA, because it’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right for a variety like Syrah. A slightly warm ripening interval, but also a cooling effect– so you get that pepper spice coupled with fruit which is essentially what Syrah— makes Ballard Canyon ideal growing conditions for the Syrah grape. There is 17 vineyards total in the Ballard Canyon AVA but just 6 produce wine, the rest is sold to other wineries. Currently, only 600 of 7,000 acres are planted, over 300 of those acres are planted to Syrah. Proving that “everyone sort of knew; ‘this is our champion’, this is what we want to bring forward.”
In Part One of our interview with Michael, he shares the backstory of how Ballard Canyon AVA evolved from an idea to reality.
In Part Two of our interview, Michael lights up about what makes Larner wines “Grounded”.
If you think most winemakers are obsessed with soil, try hanging out with one who’s a former geologist. Michael Larner shifted his career path from studying rocks to expressing their presence through wine and hasn’t looked back. From the labels to the winemaking philosophy, the wines of Larner Vineyard are driven by a devotion to expression of the earth, and there’s a palpable passion for place in every bottle. I took a trip to Larner with Michael this past week and was amazed by the dedicated farming and incredible geology of this special place.
Located in the southern end of the new Ballard Canyon AVA, the vineyard was planted in 1999 and 2000, and currently has just 34 acres of grapevines. The geological jumble at Larner would make any soil geek salivate. In the upper hills one finds bits of the rocky Paso Robles conglomerate; there are chunks of Careaga sandstone, chert, and quartz; Marina sand overlays much of the property (“We have a running joke that we should have started a business selling playbox sand before we started the vineyard,” says Larner); and underlying everything is chalk- Larner’s defining soil. Unlike the northern half of Ballard Canyon, which has harder limestone, Larner sits on a bed of very friable, and thus easily exchangeable, chalk. I was somewhat surprised to find that the soils here, despite their chalkiness, are actually quite acidic, much like the acidic granite of the Northern Rhone. “Our soil pH is around 4.5, though we chose to focus on rootstocks to address that issue rather than amend it with something like gypsum.” In general, Larner’s approach to farming has focused on a natural approach and finding ways to let the vineyard most clearly express itself. They have been farming organically for several years as well, and are wrapping up the official certification process.
Like most of Ballard Canyon, Larner excels with several different Rhone varieties, along with a guest appearance by some delicious Malvasia Bianca, but the shining star is Syrah. The Ballard Canyon Winegrowers are even taking the unique step of creating a cartouche bottle for estate-grown Syrahs from the region, along the lines of what one might see in Barolo. “We’ve planted 7 different clones of Syrah, which allows us to get multiple expressions of Syrah from one site,” says Larner. “Our idea was never to put 20 acres of one clone and one rootstock; we wanted diversity.” This clonal diversity has also allowed Larner to observe the flavors imparted by the site separate from those imparted by clone. “To me, the thread has always been that minerality. I call it flint, and there is a lot of flint and chert here,” says Larner. “There’s also a chocolate note, different from oak-derived chocolate aromatics, reminiscent of cacao.”
The vineyard initially came to fame through the fruit it sold to small producers. “By definition, the clonal diversity meant that we needed to find smaller producers to buy the fruit. We couldn’t provide 20 tons that would ripen at once for a larger brand,” says Larner. “As a result, these smaller guys started branding the vineyard, and really distinguishing the site in the eyes of critics and the public.” While the Larner estate program has grown, Larner’s focus is still on the clients who made the site’s reputation. “People often think we’d be taking the best fruit for ourselves, but we always make sure our clients get what they want first and farm it to their specifications. We actually end up with what they don’t want.” The list of winemakers who purchase fruit here reads like a who’s who of Santa Barbara County: Paul Lato, Jaffurs, Herman Story, Kunin, Tercero, Palmina, Bonaccorsi, Kaena, Transcendence, McPrice Myers– and that’s not even the whole lineup!
The winemakers who purchase Larner fruit speak of the site, and its farming, as though it were a top lieu-dit in the Rhone Valley. “Michael really wants his clients’ wines to be great,” says Craig Jaffurs, owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellars. “I think he takes our wine as a personal reflection. Because of this, he’ll go above and beyond the call of duty to get our grapes farmed, picked, and delivered. In 2010, a cool, tough harvest year, Michael offered to pick our grapes in sub-lots so we could maximize our quality.”
The wines from Larner Vineyard, across producers, are fascinating in their structure. In my experience the wines need a few years in bottle to really strut their stuff, striking that perfect balance between minerality, spice, and fruit. It is also a vineyard that seems to favor picking at relatively restrained ripeness levels. “Larner shows its best at moderate sugar levels, not at the extremes,” says Larry Schaffer of Tercero. “If you pick too early, the naturally higher acid in the grapes will be too prominent, as will the higher than normal tannins. If you pick too late, the verve that the vineyard brings because of the sandy soil does not translate into the grapes.” As a result, there is a beautiful balance here between muscular structure and delicate aromatics. “It produces a wine with rich but not heavy fruit and moderate tannins,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. “In a blend it is the mid-range, filling in all of the gaps that may have been left by more high-toned or darker, more tannic fruit. On its own, in the best vintages, it shows earthy, smoked meat aromas along with the fruit, and has admirable length, considering that it still doesn’t come across as overtly tannic.”
In addition to the huge soil influence, climate is a major factor here, as the vineyard occupies a cooler microclimate than most of the AVA. “It seems to stay much cooler than other parts of Ballard Canyon and therefore things tend to move along much slower there,” says Schaffer. “Bud break tends to be later and grapes just seem to take their pretty little time.” Jaffurs agrees, attributing the quality of this site’s other star grape, Grenache, to this more moderate climate. “Ballard Canyon, and his spot in particular, are in that sweet spot between the really cool marine influences of Lompoc and the warmer Santa Ynez spots. He could have the best Grenache site in Santa Barbara County.”
Larner Vineyard is one of the most thrilling sites in a region filled with them (Jonata, Stolpman, and Purisima Mountain just to name a few). The passion of Michael Larner, and his desire to elevate not only his vineyard, but Ballard Canyon and Santa Barbara County as a whole, is readily apparent. “One of the things I look for in a vineyard other than site is an ‘impassioned grower.’ Michael certainly fits the bill,” says Jaffurs. “He loves his vineyard like he loves his family. He is hard working and committed, and always in good humor, even when things are tough.” Kunin echoes these sentiments, saying “This business is one built on relationships – both in the marketplace and in the vineyard – and I am happy to have a lengthy and fruitful (no pun intended) one with the Larner family.” This family oriented, hands-on, untiring spirit is the essence of what makes our area so special. And ultimately, it is these intangible factors that give Larner Vineyard that little something extra.
Say the words “California wine” and more often than not, bruiser Napa Cabernets or buttery Sonoma Chardonnays come to mind. There’s a certain irony to the fact that most consumers consider wine country of Santa Barbara County as a relative newcomer when in fact the area has had acreage under vine for over one hundred years. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Santa Barbara County really took off, thanks in part to the UC Davis’s assessment of it having the optimal climate for growing grapes.
What makes the climate of Santa Barbara County and the Central Coast so unique? Three factors come into play: The Humboldt Current, the Coriolis Effect, and the Transverse Range.
The Humboldt Current, despite its name, has nothing to do with cheese or green pharmaceuticals. It’s actually a deep ocean current that comes up from Peru, bringing cool waters with it. That combines with the Coriolis Effect, which is a phenomenon that occurs when northern winds push surface-warm ocean water off the top of the Pacific and moves it further west. The Coriolis Effect truly is phenomenal because it’s not possible without the Earth’s rotation! When that warmer water shifts away, those deep, cool waters shift towards the top, ensuring a continuous cooling effect mid-California Coast. That cool air is then funneled inland due to the Transverse Range: that’s where the North-South running mountains turn East-West due to an early plate tectonic shift. That geological and meteorological combination add up to the unique microclimates we find around Santa Barbara County – which add up to a great variety of wine!
The two biggest AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas, in Santa Barbara County are Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. Both are river valleys created by that plate tectonic shift, which means they oddly run west-to-east, funneling cool maritime air in with them. Both AVAs benefit from large diurnal swings because the cool Pacific influence brings in chilly fog overnight, lowering the nightly temperatures, before burning off midday at higher, hotter afternoon temperatures. That large temperature swing optimizes sugar levels in grapes while maintaining acidity. You’ll notice wines from both AVAs may be higher in alcohol but never taste out of balance: there will always be a refreshing prickle of acidity on the finish. Let’s take a moment to thank diurnal swings for that!
Within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, the best known AVA is Sta. Rita Hills. (And yes, it is legally ‘Sta. Rita Hills’ and not ‘Santa Rita Hills.’ It seems the famous Santa Rita winery in Chile was a bit peeved when the Santa Rita Hills AVA was initially granted and sued to prevent consumer confusion.) Sta. Rita Hills is most famous for its Pinot Noir. The AVA benefits from that ocean air as well as very specific ‘chet’ soil that create the unmistakably bright and floral Sta. Rita Pinot flavor. It’s no mistake that some of the best-known California Pinot vineyards, including Sea Smoke, are located here.
Moving away from the ocean, we find the Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon AVAs. As their names imply, they are both lower altitude AVAs and, since they’re surrounded by mountains, heat and sunlight reflect off to create much warmer microclimates than those found in Sta. Rita Hills. Bordeaux and Rhone varietals do well here. In particular, Cabernet Sauvignon loves Happy Canyon and Syrah rules Ballard Canyon.
And, fun fact!: Happy Canyon earned its moniker by having the only working still during Prohibition, leading many a local to visit and to leave quite happy! We’re pleased to see this happy-making legacy continued with fantastic wine.
And finally, the newest AVA in the region is perhaps the closest to our heart: the Los Olivos District. Located in the area surrounding the Los Olivos Café, the Bernat vineyard is proud to be part of the Los Olivos District. Comparatively flat and warm, Syrah absolutely thrives here – which you can taste in the many different Bernat Syrah bottlings.
With the continued interest in Santa Barbara County, we feel that its potential is just now being brought to fruition. The various microclimates and unique topography allow for infinite possibilities, from rich, round reds to bright, acidic whites. Santa Barbara Country truly has a wine for every wine lover!
We love sharing Santa Barbara Wine Country! Shop our Wine Merchant here and we’ll ship our wine country to you! Consider choosing from our custom wine club selection that offers only the best of California Central Coast wines.
Blair Fox, of Blair Fox Cellars, is a Santa Barbara native who found the passion for wine and viticulture in his own backyard. Blair began attending UC Davis as a pre-med student, before transitioning into fermentation science for brewing. Due to uncontrollable circumstances he had to switch a class last minute, and Blair stumbled into his first viticulture course, which marked the moment he fell in love with the grape growing side of the industry. At first he thought he would solely be a grape grower, but once he realized that he would have to relinquish the grapes to someone else to turn into wine, he knew he wanted to have his hands in that side as well.
After graduating from college with a degree in both Viticulture and Enology, Blair began employment as head winemaker for a family-owned winery in the Santa Ynez Valley. This was the time he and his wife, Sarah, established their own label Blair Fox Cellars. As Santa Barbara wine country’s premier restaurant for highlighting local winemakers, we are proud to say the Los Olivos Café was the first to offer Blair Fox Cellars on a wine list! After a few years of making incredible wines, Blair traveled to the Rhone region of France, and shortly thereafter traveled to Australia to expand his knowledge of the extraordinary wines made around the world. After coming back to his roots in the Santa Barbara County, he began working for Fess Parker and now also makes the wine for Epiphany—yes, Blair stays very busy
The focus for Blair Fox Cellars is on Syrah and other Rhone varieties. The estate vineyard, planted by Blair himself and farmed organically, has Grenache, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Vermentino, and a small amount of Zinfandel planted. Blair feels it is very important to be part of the grape growing process as a winemaker. He enjoys being able to control the wine from vine to glass, not only in his estate vineyards but the ones he sources fruit from as well. Looking for grapes with beautiful concentration and intense varietal character, he currently sources grapes from Zotovich, Kimsey, Tierra Alta, Larner, and his own Fox Family Vineyards.
Blair and his family take pride in the creation of the small production wines for Blair Fox Cellars. While Blair manages the winemaking, Sarah does the marketing. His two adorable daughters love riding on the forklift and helping with Pigeage – foot stomping the grape cap! The grapes are hand harvested, hand sorted, fermented in small lots, and basket pressed to ensure the highest possible quality and true expression of the vineyard. The results of this family’s hard work are wines with a modern feel, while showing a reflection of historically made French wines.
With the festive holiday season fast approaching, the excitement of celebrating with family and friends can seem dizzying as we bustle about preparing for gatherings, shopping for that perfect gift, and transforming our homes into warm and welcoming winter retreats sparkling with seasonal touches. Just thinking about all there is to do while juggling work, crowded streets, and traffic is enough to leave you breathless and wistfully dreaming of stepping back to a time where you could explore the streets of a small town at your own pace. A town with small, family-owned stores offering unique items, and one that offered plenty of opportunities to relax and enjoy a moment over a glass of wine, savor a small snack, or dine at a leisurely pace. A town that offered a quaint festive feel, where you were greeted with smiles, helpful advice, and ended the day feeling like you’ve gained new friends.
Luckily, you don’t need to step back in time! Such a destination is just a few hours drive from Los Angeles. In the town of Los Olivos, located in the heart of the Santa Barbara wine country, you will find all you need to check everyone off your shopping list (including you) and have an enjoyable time doing it. To make your stay as comfortable as possible, and feel like a real vacation, check out the openings at the Bernat Winery & Retreats. Two of the Bernat Retreats are located just a few minutes from downtown Los Olivos. If the Bernat Retreats are booked, Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn is a delightful boutique hotel in downtown Los Olivos.
Waking up to crisp, clean country air is invigorating and sets the stage for a totally enjoyable day! Your morning can start with a delicious weekend breakfast at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café, owned by locals Sam & Shawnda Marmorstein, or you can cozy up to a cup of freshly brewed Peet’s Coffee at Corner House Coffee, originally one of the first residences in Los Olivos built around 1800, and repurposed by the local Lash Family, it has become one of the gathering spots for the community. Corner House offers an array of freshly baked goods in addition to a selection of hot breakfast items. Both the coffee shop and the Los Olivos Café have great patios to watch the morning unfold as you wait for the shops to open between10 – 11am.
Next door to Corner House Coffee is Los Olivos’ go to sweet shop, Stafford’s Famous Chocolates, located at the base of an historic water tower, the perfect place to stock up on stocking stuffers. Behind that are two delightfully complimentary shops, Wendy Foster – LO and !Romp – LO. Wendy Foster offers a stunning collection of dressy/casual clothing selected from renowned designers. Each piece delivers a stylish statement and you’re sure to find a beautiful edition to any woman’s wardrobe. Next door, !Romp offers a selection of Italian footwear and handbags, plus unique one-of-a-kind accessories and gift items. Walking out and behind Corner House Coffee, as you head toward Alamo Pintado, you’ll discover Waxing Poetic. Owned by Patti Pagliei Simpson, her store offers interesting pieces of jewelry, charms, candles, housewares, and many objects that are sure to delight.
For the little people on your shopping list, don’t miss the Tiny Tree Boutique located inside a restored, historic water tower originally built in the late 1800s. Tiny Tree is a specialty children’s clothing store with a unique and vintage-inspired custom product line for girls designed and handmade by owner Christine Lash. She also has a few other product lines for both girls and boys, including shoes and hats. Nearby is Inez gallery featuring fine art and handmade goods. Next door, is First Street Leather. Set a little ways back, the shop has been a local favorite for nearly 40 years. Stepping inside you’ll experience the deep rustic smell of leather and find fashions “that feel like butter to the touch.” A few steps further you’ll discover the entrance to a secret garden space housing the Artisans Gallery. Originally an old silversmith’s workshop, the gallery offers handmade leather designs and handcrafted items from different regions of Mexico City.
At the intersection of Grand and Alamo Pintado stands the Los Olivos flag pole at the center of town. Erected in 1918 as a tribute to WWI Veterans, it is a common point of orientation for locals and visitors. On the southeast corner is the Los Olivos General Store, formerly the Los Olivos Garage, and used as Goober’s garage during the filming of “Return to Mayberry”. The Larner Family embraced the theme “wine-art-home”, so the store features locally produced artisan items “that celebrate the lifestyle of the Santa Ynez Valley.” You will have no problem spending time browsing through all the interesting items on display. Among the unique home décor, tabletop items, jewelry, books, handbags, scarves, wine accessories, packaged gourmet foods, olive oil, skin care products, and garden goods, you’ll be able to check off many on your gift list. And, you can step through a door and taste the Larner wines too!
Continuing east on Grand, toward the Hwy 154 end of town (literally about twenty steps away), pop into Avec Moi Décor featuring beautiful European gifts and antiques for the home and garden, including a selection of baby gifts. A little further on you’ll discover Gallery Los Olivos exhibiting original works of art in a variety of medium. Then, at the corner of Jonata and Grand, it’s worth a quick trip around the corner to visit Pumacasu. Owned by a husband and wife team, Carlos carries vintage and antique corkscrews, while Christine is an accomplished bench jeweler that makes pieces right in front of you.
Crossing the street at the east end of Grand, step into the Saarloos & Sons tasting room because by now, you’ll be ready for a treat. Inside their tasting room you’ll find a sweet surprise…Enjoy Cupcakes!Inspired by local produce, flavors, and wines, owner Amber Vander Vliet creates incredibly delicious bite-sized cupcakes that melt in your mouth.
Heading back toward the flagpole, you’ll pass the Carriage building. Climbing to the second floor, you’ll open the door to the Style Junction and find yourself transported to a loft in Soho, London, England. Owner Sue Turner-Cray, British born, offers vintage and new, one-of-a-kind designer clothing. If you have a woman on your list that likes “something with a unique flair”, this is the place to find it.
Arriving at the northeast corner of Grand and Alamo Pintado, be sure to go into the courtyard and stop in atHoneyPaperon the second floor. This is the place to discover unique holiday cards to send to special friends and family. And, this is the place you’ll find lovely paper and ribbons to wrap the treasures you have found on your shopping spree. Owner Michelle Castle “believes that invitations, social stationery and even a simple greeting card can make a lasting impression.” Paper is her passion, and from her hand-selected assortment, you’ll be sure to make a lasting impression with your gift. You can visit Atmosphere Atelier owned by interior designer Collette Kaplan. Open Friday and Saturday, this upscale boutique offers antique furnishings, accessories, lighting, and beautiful tabletop items. Across the courtyard, and accessible from Alamo Pintado, you can drop into Olive Hill Farm. Featuring the best olive oils in the Los Olivos area, you can stop and enjoy an olive oil tasting before checking out the local gourmet food products, including wonderful olives, tapenades, gift baskets, vinegars, and more.
Following Alamo Pintado north to the southwest corner across from St. Mark’s In-the-Valley Episcopal Church, is a garden shop that cannot be missed. J. Woeste – Los Olivos offers a wide variety of succulents, garden ornaments, sculptures, birdbaths, wind chimes, and more. Outside and inside, you will find something that is perfect for everyone on your list that has the slightest interest in nature.
Moving back toward the flagpole in the center of town, you will pass two clothing stores offering unique attire, Toro for Men and Bonita Boutique for women. Bonita offers bohemian style clothing from upscale designers, while Toro offers clothing, leather goods, and a special section for dog lovers.
Crossing the park to explore the other end of Grand Avenue, you should take the time to drop in and experience Jedlicka’s Saddlery for a taste of the real ranch life. This is the store to find quality western wear and equestrian apparel for all the horse lovers on your list. From cowboy hats to cowboy boots and everything you need in between, Jedlicka’s has been outfitting cowboys and cowgirls since 1932.
Like tying the perfect bow on a gift, ending a day in Los Olivos isn’t complete until you open the door to the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café. Not only will you be able to take a deep breath and savor a delicious meal at one of the most renowned restaurants in the Santa Ynez Valley, but their wine selection and retail area is the perfect place to purchase wines and gifts to pair beautifully with all your wine and foodie friends. Many of the ingredients are picked that morning from the Los Olivos Café organic farm – so you will be experiencing them at the peak of flavor. The staff is knowledgeable, friendly, and strives to make everyone feel at home and welcome. From house-made pasta to a fabulous barramundi with fried chickpeas and persimmons, you won’t be disappointed. With 20 boutique stores to explore and enough charm to make you feel like you truly stepped back in time, Los Olivos is a shopping destination, not to be missed!
In the heart of Santa Barbara Wine Country, we are the premier wine merchant for California Central Coast wines, from Santa Barbara County to Monterey County, with select vintages from other areas of California’s Wine Country and noteworthy wines from around the world.